The U.S. Office of Education provides "little clear guidance" or supervision in administering the nation's largest program of federal aid to education, and has failed to recoup millions of misspent dollars from the states, according to a study by the National Institutes of Education.
The study, part of a $15 million review of federal aid to education, found a steady decline in the agency's monitoring of how federal dollars are spent. It laid much of the blame on bureaucratic infighting.
Auditors have become so discouraged with the infighting and failure to enforce federal laws that they are now reluctant to audit school aid programs, the study said.
The study focused on management of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Title I, the largest federal education program, is supposed to provide help to disadvantaged school districts and children. Its cost was $2 billion last year.
But the report indicates it is difficult to tell if the money is going where it is supposed to because of unclear, inconsistent and often conflicting instructions from Washington. States and local school districts, it said, "are not receiving consistent advice and they are increasingly unsupervised in the use of Title I funds."
The Title I program, which is left largely in the hands of local and state education officials, has come under attack before. But this latest criticism is regarded as especially important because it comes as part of a five-part study ordered by Congress that is expected to lay the groundwork for a reexamination now that Title I is up for renewal in Congress.
The most damaging chapter of the report deals with federal mismanagement. By law, Title I dollars are to be spent over and above dollars from normal state and local sources, and are to be directed at the nation's poorest school children. The report says federal auditors have recommended that local districts return more than $2.40 million for violating these provisions and spending the money on non-poor pupils.
But OE has requested a return of only $12 million and local districts have actually returned only about $1 million, according to NIE researchers. Millions have been lost, they add, by the agency's failure to act bevore a five-year statute of limitations on the collections expires.
The report attributes the delays to OE's Compensatory Education Division, where it said "officials believe that the proper role of the federal government is to distribute funds, not to exert precise control over their use."
Thus in 1974 and 1975, the report said, this division turned aside recommendations that $26 million be returned by New York, $3.4 million by Wisconsin, $1.4 million by Oklahoma and $250,000 by Tennessee.
Auditors new are reluctant to look at Title I outlays. In 1972, OE reviewed the activities of 346 school districts. Last year it reviewed nine; this year 11.